A few years ago when I visited Morocco I discovered a town that still had a close connection with the past.
It was Tetouan, a town that had links with the fifteenth and sixteenth century when the Moors were finally thrown out of Spain. Whilst Columbus was busily sailing the ocean blue, the last Moorish ruler was booted out by Ferdinand and Isabella.
Tetouan became the first real settlement of not just the Moors, but also the Jews who were also being expelled from Spain by the Catholic Church. And so even to this day there are three cemeteries outside the walls of the city, one for Muslims, one for Jews and one for Christians.
But the links with the past carry on through the centuries and one in particular is still firmly at the centre of community life in the town, that of the baker.
Picture a real rabbit warren of narrow winding alleyways with street sellers on both sides. Brush past people with sun darkened faces and women wearing conical hats adorned with dark tufts of rope. Smell wood burning stoves and an underlying collection of spices. Listen to the sounds of street criers hawking their wares and you get just a hint of the impact upon the senses that the Kasbah of Tetouan had upon us!
When the smell of wood smoke was strongest our guide stopped and explained how the bakery system worked within the Kasbah. The houses were too small for them to have big ovens capable of baking bread and so all that was done communally. In addition there was a real fear of fire within the walled town with everyone crowded closely together. And so there was a general agreement that any major cooking or baking had to be kept to a few carefully controlled areas. In fact each quarter tended to have its own bakery.
And if you wanted your own recipe or style of bread then you prepared your bread in the traditional Moroccan way and then when it was ready for baking you would bring it along to the baker.
Now just how this baking was paid for was quite fascinating, for no money passed hands at all in the transaction, and there is a good reason for it. Women would bring their bread along to the baker and would pay him in bread. So if they wanted four loaves baking then they would bring him five loaves along and he would keep one as his payment.
But that was not all, they would also bring along anything else that they wanted cooking and so would turn up with pots and tajines and anything else that would benefit from long slow cooking in the oven.
From the crack of dawn when he began preparing his oven right the way through till five o’clock when he finished the baker would not touch any money at all. The reason was that he worked with his hands all day loading the ovens and then taking the baked bread out. If he were to touch money then that might well carry dirt on it and so would contaminate the bread he was working with.
However, at five o’clock when he had completed all the baking for the day he was then free to open up his bread shop and sell all the bread that he had baked but which had been used as payment by the housewives. In that way he was able to get the necessary money to pay for other things he needed and of course for more wood and charcoal for his ovens!